Photo by Elliot Kovnick
On Feb. 1, a group of anti-fascist protesters shut down a planned speech at the University of California, Berkeley by alt-right provocateur and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos as part of his “Dangerous Faggot” tour. The university cancelled the event for safety reasons as demonstrators lit fires and threw firecrackers and rocks at the building. One Yiannopoulos fan was pepper-sprayed. The next day, President Trump threatened to cut federal funding to the University, tweeting, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”
Donald Trump does not actually care about protecting freedom of speech from violent attacks. Trump remained silent when one of Yiannopoulos’ fans shot a leftist Industrial Workers of the World member before Yiannopoulos’ appearance at the University of Washington. He was dismissive of the spike in hate crimes after his election and even encouraged crowds at his rallies to “knock the crap out of” protesters.
Beyond Trump’s blatant hypocrisy lies a larger, more difficult issue with which to engage. Without even mentioning Yiannopoulos or the black bloc protesters, readers fill in the blanks for him, bringing to the situation assumptions about who practices violence and what that violence looks like. In the media, the damage done took the form of broken windows, a light tower set on fire, and firecrackers thrown by protesters. In this scenario, the audience only perceived violence in the shape of visible damage, failing to recognize the violence of the speech that motivated protest.
Most individuals conceptualize violence as an action that begins and ends at a single point in time. A myopic event-based understanding of violence offers little room to question what happens when free speech encourages listeners to practice or excuse violence done to innocent people. Regardless of one’s feelings towards the legitimacy of protest violence, the constitution of violence and how the term is deployed in politics should concern activists. To fairly evaluate a flashpoint political confrontation, we must include in our scope of violence the normalized harms that operate in the background of daily life. This requires contextualizing speech and parsing its content, motive, and consequences.
Yiannopoulos planned to use the Berkeley event to kick off a campaign against “sanctuary campuses,” during which he would call for the withdrawal of federal grants to universities and the prosecution of chancellors who do not report undocumented students to federal authorities. The UC Berkeley Office of Student Affairs emailed the Berkeley Republican Club expressing concern that Yiannopoulos would reveal photos and personal information of undocumented Berkeley students to a wide audience of those both watching at the event and those watching from home via livestream, putting students at risk of removal from school, arrest, and deportation.
Yiannopoulos has used this strategy of harassment in the past against a transgender student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who challenged the university’s locker room policy. He shared her name and photo to the audience and proceeded to call her transphobic slurs and mock her appearance. Not only did Yiannopoulos personally attack her for being transgender, he disclosed information that could invite further harassment and threats from his fans against her.
Yiannopoulos’ speech, though constitutionally protected, enables his listeners to harass, bully, and use law enforcement to threaten the livelihood of vulnerable individuals. If breaking windows is violence, then naming undocumented students to be deported should count as well. More broadly, free speech can perpetuate and justify violence on a structural level.
There is no shortage of violent ideas Yiannopoulos propagates, from calling Islam “barbarism” and rape culture a “myth” to designating Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization, all of which have dangerous consequences. Rape apologia shames survivors and justifies sexual assault. Yiannopoulos’ homonationalism culminates in exclusionary travel policies that imperil the lives of refugees and further perpetuate hate crimes against Muslims. Branding a disparate group of people demanding an end to anti-black police brutality as “terrorists” reproduces racist categorizations of black people as thuggish, in turn giving grounds for excessive force and mass incarceration.
Yiannopoulos’ politics cannot be reduced to simply having a different opinion. The alt-right ideology he legitimizes materially threatens the lives of marginalized people, some of whom he even attacks directly in his speeches. We are unequipped to draw connections between discourse and reality without expanding the scale of what we regard as violence.
The recent punching of alt-right leader Richard Spencer serves as a fitting example to distinguish individualized from systemic violence. The inevitable gifs and memes that resulted spread widely, but ultimately did not perpetuate any structure of mass discrimination or political exclusion of white supremacists. After all, some of the most powerful people in the executive branch have a documented history of racism.
Individual anecdotes that reinforce one’s own worldview are the bread and butter of conservative newsmedia and politicians precisely because they do not have to represent structural forces. Ronald Reagan’s story of Linda Taylor, a Chicago woman who cheated public aid programs to live off food stamps, set in stone the myth of the welfare queen. Despite little evidence of widespread welfare fraud, this heavily racialized figure still persists in our political culture, rationalizing paternalistic regulations on SNAP benefits that criminalize those in poverty and deprive them of critical income. Discrete encounters with moral depravity are just personal stories unless they form larger institutional patterns.
Yiannopolos may not inflict physical violence upon others himself, but he does circulate the cultural rationale that births systemic violence. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids that send undocumented immigrants back to a life of danger and poverty at home and travel bans that bar refugees fleeing war result in far more violence than a single protest. If we cannot change our perspective to account for the words that promote violence, we risk missing the forest for the trees.
In response to Yiannopolos’ and others’ appeal to the First Amendment, some on the left argue that free speech does not protect hate speech, incitement, or threats. To them, offensive speakers should not be allowed to speak on college campuses. Unenforceability aside, confining definitions of free speech promotes a legalist approach to politics that frequently plays into the wrong hands. The recent extension of hate crime protections to police officers in Louisiana, Mississippi, and potentially Iowa demonstrate how those who already wield power can co-opt abstracted rights rhetoric to maintain that control.
Some liberals criticized the violent Berkeley protesters for representing the cause in a bad light to conservatives. I suggest anyone still clinging to principles of civility and class is out of touch. If the protesters were not violent thugs, they would be weak, sensitive snowflakes in need of a safe space. If throwing firecrackers at the Martin Luther King building did not threaten free speech, then calling Yiannopoulos a Nazi would have. Conservative and alt-right media have an agenda and will depict protesters as rioters or infantilize them, using whichever framing is most convenient at the moment. It is naive to think Yiannopoulos’ supporters will pay respect to the principles of the majority of peacefully protesting students or will engage in polite dialogue with those who maintain his beliefs are in line with Nazism. This sanctimonious value-shaming by liberals delivers the exact message Yiannopoulos wants America to believe: the only real violence happens at the riot.